The London Abused Women’s Centre (LAWC) is calling on London’s integrity commissioner to determine whether a city councillor violated the code of conduct following online comments criticizing a support shelter for sex workers in crisis.
The letter, signed by executive director Jennifer Dunn and addressed to the mayor and other members of city council on Friday, highlighted recent statements made by Ward 4 Coun. Susan Stevenson following last week’s council meeting, when most city politicians voted in favour of providing $2.16 million to six agencies that provide support and outreach programs for the homeless population.
Now known as the community cold weather response, Stevenson was the only councillor to vote against providing funding to three of the six agencies, identified as Ark Aid, CMHA London Coffee House and SafeSpace London.
According to city staff, SafeSpace London is set to open 15 drop-in spaces through the plan at 679 Dundas St., which is in Stevenson’s ward in the Old East Village.
“I voted NO because the only women’s homeless shelter in #LdnOnt is a support centre for sex workers,” Stevenson wrote to X, formerly known as Twitter, following councils decision to endorse the plan. “Tax payer funds to operate in the heart of a struggling business district in that same meeting received $500k to assist with the negative impacts of homelessness.”
The post also accompanied a photo of SafeSpace London’s X page.
The meeting came one day after CMHA Thames Valley announced that they would be withdrawing the proposal for their homeless hub focused on serving women and female-identifying individuals.
Following the initial post, Dunn said in the letter that the agency believes Stevenson’s statement is “harmful to women and girls in our community,” implying that the councillor “does not support women in crisis and meeting women where they are at.”
“The City of London declared intimate partner violence an epidemic this last summer and has made creating a ‘Safe London for Women, Girls, and Gender-Diverse and Trans People’ one of the main arteries of their strategic plan which includes ‘supporting community based programs… and considering the safety of woman’,” Dunn wrote in the letter to the city, adding that the agency believes “Councillor Stevenson’s narrative is in direct opposition of the 2023-2027 City of London Strategic Plan.”
“The type of rhetoric displayed by the Councillor is harmful to women in our community, including women who often by way of circumstance and situations out of their control, have ended up in the sex trade,” the letter continued.
“No woman should be denied access to services because of this, and no City Councillor should suggest otherwise.”
Speaking with Global News on Monday, Dunn added that statement’s, such as the one made by Stevenson, “alienates London’s most vulnerable woman,” adding that it also “stops women from feeling as if people in positions of power can be trusted.”
“For us, seeing somebody say that they’re not going to support an organization for women in crisis is quite concerning, regardless of what demographic of woman the organization is supporting,” she said. “The type of conversation that the Ward 4 councillor is trying to have is extremely harmful to women and girls in our community, and I think women and girls already have a really hard time based on what we’ve seen and heard through the Shine the Light on Women Abuse campaign.”
According to recent data, LAWC reported more than 11,700 service interactions, including 7,716 service calls and more than 4,000 individual counselling-group urgent support interactions within the last year.
In relation to her letter, Dunn said that she’s heard back from some members of city council, including a phone call from the mayor with plans to talk further about the situation. However, she said that she has yet to receive a response from Stevenson.
“Councillor Stevenson has been to our office before,” she recalled. “I’ve been to a meeting she held in the community, we’ve communicated time after time [and] we invite every city councillor to our events, especially during Shine the Light. Unfortunately, she did not attend those, but to have comments like what happened last week affects the women that could potentially access our services.”
In response to the letter from LAWC, Stevenson said in an email to Global News that “using taxpayer money to establish and fully-fund part-time shelters exclusively for women sex workers does not make London a Safer City for Women and Girls.”
“Instead it incentivizes vulnerable women to enter the commercial sex industry, enables human trafficking, and makes life easier for traffickers and sex purchasers,” Stevenson wrote. “Under past leadership, the London Abused Women’s Centre not only understood that, but championed that message across the country.
“It is a shame to see LAWC turn their back on that legacy.”
Stevenson denied a further request for an interview with Global News.
Jenna Rose Sands, executive director of SafeSpace London, as well as Rachel Berdan, board chair of the agency, said in a joint statement that they “acknowledge the valid concerns” expressed by LAWC in relation to Stevenson’s statements, adding that they are also “heartened by the overwhelming support.”
“We align ourselves with the belief that divisive rhetoric is detrimental, eroding the trust that vulnerable populations, and those that serve them, place in people holding positions of power,” they wrote. “London is experiencing a significant health and homelessness crisis that require positive and productive leadership from many parts of the community, including our elected officials.
“We believe all are deserving of supports, community and care, [and] it is not our place to decide who is worthy of such based upon our own comforts.”
Dunn said that she was notified that the integrity commissioner has been updated on the situation and that she will be “following up on what next steps would be.”
“We have to pay attention to all women and all people that are vulnerable in our city, and we can’t pick and choose who we’re going to support and when,” she said. “Women in our community deserve to have organizations that are there to support them. That’s the bottom line.”